Comic Relief hopes for charity from Amazon S3

Charity organisation, Comic Relief is outsourcing parts of its storage to Amazon's Simple Storage Service (S3) in Europe, but is hoping for a little more charity on the price.

UK charity, Comic Relief, best-known for its Red Nose Days is outsourcing elements of its storage infrastructure to Amazon's Simple Storage Service (S3) in Europe, but is hoping for a little more charity on the price.

Amazon launched S3 in Europe last summer, extending its US service to customers in Europe. S3 is a storage service in the cloud offering businesses low-cost access to the same storage infrastructure Amazon uses to run its own global network of websites. Pricing for EU-based storage is said to be slightly higher than in the US. In the EU, the monthly storage fee is roughly £0.09/GB, compared to £0.07/GB in the US.

"I am ever hopeful they will provide us with something in a more charitable nature," says Martin Gill, head of new media services at Comic Relief. He hopes to establish a similar relationship with Amazon as Comic Relief currently has with its existing IT vendors, Cisco, Sun and Oracle, who give their gear away for free to the charity. So far Amazon has chosen to charge the charity a nominal fee for the S3 service. Gill declined to say how much.

Costs aside, Comic Relief is more than happy with the service. It plans to grow into S3 instead of "investing in acres and acres of its own storage", notes Gill. "Keeping up with storage requirements was becoming a challenge." He adds, "Paying for what we use is a good model for us as we don't need a huge infrastructure year-round."

"Paying for what we use is a good model for us as we don't need a huge infrastructure year-round."
Martin Gill,
Head of New MediaComic Relief

During a campaign Comic Relief takes millions of pounds in donations and is serving up large flash assets from its e-commerce site. It might get anywhere from 100,000 to 200,000 people hitting on images, video, sponsorship forms and other hosted assets, during a day. "This needs fairly serious equipment," Gill says.

Traditionally Comic Relief hosted everything in the US but is gradually shifting the static elements, mainly images and video content, to Amazon S3 in Europe. That's only about 100 Gigabytes of data today, but Gill notes that his problems are less about volume and more about access rates with so many users hitting on the same content at the same time.

Aside from the performance improvements of using S3 in Europe - video was way too slow due to latency issues transporting sessions across the Atlantic - Comic Relief has found abiding by the Data Protection Act much easier. "Hosting in the EU rather than in the US is a cleaner process in terms of adhering to legislation in the UK… there are more rights to data here, so it's better to be hosting closer to home," Gill says. The long term goal is to serve all North American activities in the U.S. and all European activities from Europe.

Amazon recently introduced SLAs to more elements of the S3 service, which Gill says helps. "This reinforces the professional face of it … We are looking at transacting up to £30 million during an event, that's millions of transactions over two to three hours … We can't have shaky, wobbly moments," he says.

Comic Relief is also looking at Amazon's Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) service, to create a mirror of its compute systems on Amazon's virtual server environment, but has concerns over the scalability and security implications. Right now Gill says it's too much of a "black box environment". He'd want to be able to set up and control more elements of the service himself. The charity will begin a trial of EC2 early 2009.

In the meantime Comic Relief is about to start testing Amazon's EZDB online database service and hopes the ecommerce giant will transform its payment system into a service customers can buy. "They have such a strong background and reputation in that … it would lend us credibility with our customers," Gill says.


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